Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Wayne Flynt as the Bishop's Lecturer

To better acquaint ourselves with our assignment in Alabama, Patsy and I spent a couple of months reading histories of our new state. “Read Wayne Flynt,” knowledgeable people advised, “he is Alabama’s greatest contemporary historian.” We devoured Wayne’s Alabama: The History of a Deep South State, and his Alabama in the Twentieth Century both published by the University of Alabama Press, In a couple of weeks this distinguished Auburn University professor had given us a real feel for where Alabama had come from and where Alabama ought to go. So many of the present trials and tribulations of our state, particularly our current governmental and educational challenges, are rooted in our past. Wayne is a truly public intellectual, battling for a new and more just constitution for our state and for a state government more concerned about the economic plight of our people. He is a courageous interpreter of our state to itself, a dedicated Baptist Christian with our Lord’s own compassion for the poor. He represents the very best of our state and the very best of our faith. Wish Wayne were a Wesleyan, he certainly thinks and writes like one!

One of the joys Patsy and I have had is the establishment of an endowment for the Bishop’s Lectureship at our Huntingdon College. Huntingdon has used our lectureship to bring to its campus nationally renowned lectures, most of whom embody both great scholarship and the Christian faith. I am thrilled that this year’s lecturer on September 20 is Dr. Wayne Flynt. He will be meeting with students and faculty throughout the day, part of President Cam West’s commitment to form Huntingdon students for Christian service to our state. We are thrilled that our lectureship will help bring Dr. Flynt to Huntingdon. I encourage all of our people, particularly our clergy, to be present for his 7:30 p.m. lecture on the timely Christian topic, “The Lord is the Maker of Them All: Black, White, and Poor in America."

Huntingdon has made remarkable progress in the past few years under the inspired leadership of President West, a United Methodist pastor, scholar, and college administrator. But forgive me for thinking that Huntingdon’s greatest achievement is the college’s unreserved commitment to its role as a church-related college. In recent decades we have watched so many of our colleges slip quietly away from the church. Huntingdon is the happy exception, showing how the church and the college can be mutually beneficial. Wayne Flynt’s presence at Huntingdon and his lecture provide a wonderful occasion for us to celebrate our ministry in higher education.

Will Willimon

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

The Possibilities of Church Turnaround

“Anniston First UMC is responsive and working toward change. God is blessing!”

The words above begin a remarkable report of celebration and hope I received recently from the senior pastor at Anniston First, Rev. Peter Hawker. This was the second “90 Day Plan” I had been given since Pete’s appointment in January 2011. In both reports were descriptions of plans and goals being used to reclaim the church’s purpose and to create vision. In the second report it was obvious that momentum was being built and early buy-in from congregation and staff was taking place. Most exciting was the turnaround spirit of a church in decline to a church working hard to reclaim its purpose. The report included specific metrics of fruitfulness to the mission and purpose of the church. As one excited member recently said, “we have not seen this in years!” After receiving this six month report I placed some of these benchmarks in a comparative manner from the three previous years:

New Members

Professions of Faith


Average Attendance

First 6 Months of 2011





Previous 36 Months





In order to appreciate the early turnaround going on at Anniston First UMC it is helpful to remember the city of Anniston experienced major changes over the past several years. Most significant was the decommissioning of Ft. McClellan in 1999 and the major loss of human and economic resources within the city. The base closing affected the entire area including businesses, schools and churches. Anniston First was significantly impacted and forced to rethink its purpose in relationship to the changing community circumstances. Over the past few months the pastoral staff and leadership of the church have chosen to focus on turnaround while resisting the temptation to remain in a “maintenance mode” and decline. Their early success has been invigorating.

So what is the difference now versus that of previous years? First, is the leadership of courage and wisdom being offered by the two pastors, Pete Hawker and Minnie Stovall. It is no accident that the spirit of the church has been lifted due to recent growth. Now, growing forward is becoming contagious. It’s worth noting these early successes were born on faithful intentionality via consultation, candid communications, leadership buy-in and measured accountability to the goals outlined for the church’s turnaround. Especially important has been a continued promotion of the non-negotiable reason for being the church, “to make disciples and grow the church for Christ’s kingdom!” The expectations being built around “kingdom growth” and faithfulness to the vision is also producing secondary benefits of church health and vitality.

Here is where many of our churches lose focus and waste energy. Instead of “great commission” focus there is a scattered approach to ministry where everything is judged of equal value and penultimate ministry is treated as primary. Vision becomes fuzzy and goals become short-term reactions to seasonal needs. Unfortunately, there are many churches across our Conference quite busy but not very successful making new disciples. I am convinced that any church serious about turnaround must elevate discipleship making as primary and build vision around Jesus’ great commission.

Though early, Anniston First UMC is a good example of a church being intentional to pivot from decline to hope. If you want to know more about the turnaround ministry and vision of Anniston First, I recommend contacting the pastoral staff, Rev. Peter Hawker or Rev. Minnie Stovall. Their passion for purposeful ministry is infectious.

Bob Alford
Cheaha District Superintendent

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

First 90 Days Pastor's Report

One of our most productive innovations in the way we appoint pastors has been our First 90 Days program. Every full time pastor who moves is asked to devise a First 90 Days plan, stating the goals and activity during the first 90 days. The District Superintendent and pastor work with the lay leadership to follow the plan and to be sure that every pastor gets off to a good start. We have not had a single pastor, who followed the First 90 Days plan, to have difficulty in making the transition into a new congregation. Daniel Pope is one of the pastors whom I asked to report regularly on his First 90 Days. I wanted to share Daniel’s excellent work with you. - Will Willimon

My First 90 Days plan actually began about 30 days prior to moving to Crossville. With the belief that much can be communicated and gained through the transitional time of the 30 days leading up to the move and the 30 days immediately following the move, I got the transition underway early. First I met with the PPRC to listen to their hopes and concerns and to allow them to see my heart and begin to catch my spirit. One of my leaders is a teacher at the local high school, so he introduced me around to the administration, support staff, teachers, and coaches. Then I had a series of individual meetings with key leaders and their spouses (admin. Board chair, finance committee chair, choir director, and youth minister). I requested data on the church (i.e. budget, calendar, charge conference reports, pictorial directory, homebound list, etc.) All of this happened before June 1st.

In the week prior to moving day, I made a personal contact by phone with each family listed in the pictorial directory to express my excitement about and thankfulness for the opportunity to be their pastor. As well, I sent a “listening” survey letter to each family in the pictorial directory asking: 1) What do you love about your church?; and, 2) What are your dreams for your church? This effort to make personal contact and to listen to the people seemed to be well received and appreciated.

The people of Crossville First offered to come and move me here from Oneonta. I accepted as I perceived that this gave them a “share” in me. They graciously helped me move in and get settled, and we had a “meet and greet” reception in the fellowship hall that evening. I even made an in-home visit to a prospect that evening with one of my congregants. On June 16th, the day after moving day, I was able to visit 20 homes in my neighborhood to introduce myself.

We had a great first Sunday together, a combined worship service with sermon titled “Something Worth Living For.” I invited everyone to the parsonage that night for fellowship, conversation, and vision casting (we did that each of the 1st two Sundays - June 19th and 26th). God’s vision is a family systems approach where every age group has activities with biblical foundations each Sunday and Wednesday. The people of Crossville have really stepped up to the challenge with new Sunday schools for children formed and a children’s choir ministry to begin on Aug. 17th, the launch for Wednesday night ministries for the new school year.

I began meeting weekly with the youth minister for guidance and support. The PPR met June 27th. We discussed the role of the PPR, how we will work best together, had both the spiritual diagnosis conversation and the expectations conversation, and completed a 6 month review of the youth minister. Administrative Board met on June 29th, and I had the expectations conversation again with the leadership. This included being 100% in our tithe to the District. We caught up our May tithe shortfall immediately afterward.

On July 1st, I invited my neighborhood to a block party at the parsonage. I visited 67 homes to hand out invitations. I rented an inflatable slip-n-slide, the church brought homemade ice cream, and we cooked hot dogs. We had about 60 people attend (30 church members and 30 neighbors). It was fun, and I got to meet many of my neighbors. We had about 6 first time guests the next morning in worship.I’ve made about 25 in-home visits, numerous calls, and sent many cards thus far. I’ve visited about 12 local businesses meeting people in their places of work. We are having a “Christmas in July” celebration on July 31st. As well, we are planning some outreach events. I really have to give God all the glory and give the people of Crossville First credit for their enthusiastic support. We expect to see His glory through and among us in the present and future!

Daniel Pope
Crossville First UMC

Monday, July 11, 2011

"The Bishop's Dashboard" - The Christian Century Article

William Willimon’s experiment in accountability

May 31, 2011 by Jason Byassee

"My job now is to coordinate disaster relief," William Willimon said, reflecting on the storms in Alabama that destroyed 20 United Methodist churches, rendered 20 more unusable for months to come and killed more than 200 Alabamians. "We're trying to learn from our experience with Katrina to be more organized. People really need the church in a moment like this."

For Willimon, the bishop of the North Alabama Conference of the United Methodist Church, disaster relief is an unexpected addition to an already unconventional career.

When Willimon became a bishop in 2004, people who knew him and his work were curious. Why would the dean of Duke University Chapel want to leave a high-profile position to oversee congregations in Alabama? The joke in the world of theological scholarship is that one must "publish or parish"—and here was Willimon, among the most prolific theological writers of his generation ("never an unpublished thought"), voluntarily choosing to occupy himself with hundreds of parishes.

The tenor of Willimon's own theological writings raised an even more significant question: Could an inveterate gadfly, the author of Resident Aliens and other forceful critiques of mainline Protestantism, oversee a unit of the mainline church without doing damage to himself or others?

With Willimon set to retire as bishop in 2012 (he plans to return to teaching at Duke Divinity School), it is appropriate to consider how the Willimon experiment in the episcopacy has turned out. As one might expect, it has not been business as usual.

Willimon has used his authority to "decimate the career ladder," as one pastor told me. In the process he has alienated many pastors in the North Alabama Conference. He has promoted younger clergy deemed to be more talented over those with more seniority. He has streamlined some meetings and eliminated others. "I got annual conference down to two days," he boasts (it had previously lasted four and a half days). And he has made accountability a hallmark term.

Accountability, in this case, mainly means that every congregation's weekly numbers for giving, attendance, hours of service, and professions of faith are posted online for all the world—and the rest of the conference—to see. They appear on a page on the conference website called the North Alabama Dashboard. These statistics become one source of input for decisions on pastoral appointments. What looks to some like a call for public accountability looks to others like an act of public shaming. For critics, the Dashboard seems to treat the dynamics of church life like so many hamburgers sold.

Willimon's main desire seems to be to see energy in ministry. "He wants us to be out there, doing something," one young pastor told me. "It's almost like he doesn't care what."

I met with a group of pastors that Willimon called the Brat Pack, made up of some of the younger pastors whom he had promoted above the usual rung on the career ladder. Having Willimon's support didn't stop them from criticizing him. One accused him of failing to promote women sufficiently (only one member of his cabinet is female). One accused him of unnecessarily alienating older clergy, perhaps even practicing ageism. Others voiced a common criticism: he travels and speaks a lot outside the conference. "He's never here," they say. Willimon's travel schedule makes him an easy target—but he protests that he preaches in his conference's churches 35 Sundays a year.

Though Mike Holly, a pastor to students at Birmingham's Canterbury UMC, defended Willimon's initiatives, saying that "no institution will fix itself." He noted that Willimon came to Birmingham with a limited amount of time (Methodist bishops usually cannot serve another four-year term after they turn 65) and only one unchecked power: to move pastors to new churches. Why not use that power to put talented, energetic people in places where they and their churches can thrive?

Defending the Dashboard, these pastors said that a good pastor always pays attention to the numbers. "This goes all the way straight back to Wesley," said Wade Griffith, a pastor at Liberty Crossings UMC in Birmingham. Methodists in the 18th century scrupulously counted attenders, members, professions of faith, accounts of sanctification and financial gifts. Willimon is practicing what academics might call "traditioned innovation." The online Dashboard may be new, but it comes straight out of Methodist custom. One of the district superintendents who works under Willimon said, "Haven't you ever seen the pinup numbers on the plywood boards in front of little churches? Churches have always counted." With the Dashboard, "pastors can't lie to their buddies."

Surprisingly, the Dashboard can even build community. When pastors can see which of their peers are succeeding, they can (or should) call them up and ask them how they're doing it. "Using 'I don't know how' as an excuse is out the window," Griffith said.

Willimon said that the numbers on the Dashboard have been illuminating to him. "The first month we used it, the pastors showing the best growth were people I didn't know. I had to call them up: 'Hey, this is your bishop, what are you doing up there in Dismal Swamp?'"

With the Dashboard, Willimon "busted the closed shop," Griffith said. When appointments are made, both pastors and parishioners ask to see the numbers.

"The numbers take the appointment system out of the backroom," said Brandon Harris, pastor of Avondale UMC in Birmingham. "We all want to talk about performance."

But performance of what? As readers of Resident Aliens know, Willimon has eloquently argued that churches must above all be faithful to the demands of the gospel. A church that stands up for nonviolence or racial justice may post some poor numbers. Doesn't an emphasis on numbers serve to trim the wings of prophetic pastors—the very kind of pastor Willimon has encouraged in his writings and the kind of pastor that he was?

Several members of the Brat Pack noted this tension and said it is one that Willimon hasn't resolved. Like early Methodists, he wants to see evangelical energy and church growth. He wants clergy who don't live off the achievements of the past but who rally missional energy for God's future. Yet at the same time, said Wade Langer, who was assigned to plant a new church in Tuscaloosa, he encourages courageous action. "He's always saying, 'Don't be afraid to piss people off.'"

Several expressed confidence that Willimon would support the decisions they make as pastors. Griffith said Willimon's approach "has given me even more courage to lead my congregation when it comes to making difficult or unpopular decisions."

And these young pastors do show courage. One spoke at length about the ministry at his church, and only later did I discover his congregation carries a debt of more than $7 million. Another told of an innovative ministry to gay and lesbian families, another of a Theology on Tap program (which might be a tame idea elsewhere, but not in the Deep South).

I heard about a pastor whom Willimon sent to a rural church, where she was disappointed that few people turned out for church. The next week she went across the railroad tracks and got a crowd of folks from the tar paper shacks to come to church. She baptized six one Easter but also lost six of her most devoted members. Her Dashboard numbers didn't show any growth, because people left the church as the "wrong" kind of people entered it. Willimon may want growth, but not just in the way many church growth consultants suggest. Willimon likes the Dashboard, but he knows that it is only one potential indicator of faithfulness.

The pastors all had stories of Willimon reaching out to them personally. He telephones people out of the blue and, though he's on the road a lot, uses technology to stay in touch. "He's 21st-century accessible," one pastor said, amazed at how quickly he responds to e-mail and downloads new apps.

A key player in Willimon's episcopacy has been Bill Hamer, a former executive at Liberty Mutual insurance company. It's not uncommon these days for denominational administrators to hire executive coaches. Hamer, who had taught management and been an administrator in higher education, met Willimon when the two served on a board together. Hamer was pleasantly surprised that the church would ask him to do something that draws on his business skills. And Willimon appreciated an adviser who's not surprised by impious behavior from clergy.

Hamer advised Willimon on personnel matters and devised the Dashboard system. He told me that the way to read the Dashboard is to look for the odd numbers—like the percentage of people served per member, or the ratio of membership to attendance (which will reveal churches that have large but inaccurate membership rolls).

Part of Hamer's job was to interpret Willimon's manic energy to others ("Wait and see which of the ten things he mentioned today he'll mention again tomorrow. Then do those"). Hamer said his most important task was to get Willimon to focus not on the 25 things on his mind at any given moment, but the five things the church can actually accomplish.

Hamer was eventually let go after the conference cabinet and others concluded that he had too much power. Willimon remains unconvinced on that point, but he bowed to the cabinet's wishes.

About Willimon, Hamer said: "He's a big believer in conflict. He can't help being an agitator. He can't sit still because Jesus doesn't."

I saw this style in action. I heard Willimon casually tell the pastor of a large church that he might assign the talented young leader of the church's contemporary service to a different position. "That conversation would affect 3,000 people," the pastor told me, shaking his head over how a momentous move was brought up so breezily. I was with Willimon when he bumped into a young African-American pastor in his conference. "Do you like working with white people?" Willimon bluntly asked. It seems Willimon doesn't want anyone to feel settled in a job.

A pastor who has seen the pugilist side of Willimon is Reggie Holder, director of a series of ministries for the poor at Highlands UMC, a neo-Gothic church in Birmingham's trendy Five Points South neighborhood. The church's ministries feed more than 100 homeless people daily and provide them with access to washers, dryers and post office boxes. The church has hired the homeless to run these ministries. One Highlands member, who lamented that her once-beautiful church looked like a city bus stop, stirred up some local merchants to oppose the church's ministries to the homeless. A front-page story in theBirmingham News detailed these complaints and quoted business owners who said that nothing was wrong with their area other than what was caused by Highlands.

Willimon weighed into the controversy with energy. He wrote an op-ed piece in the Birmingham News that said: "I love it when the United Methodist Church makes front-page news not for losing members or fighting over some social issue, but for being the church and doing what Jesus commanded us to do." He named the clergy leading the local ministries and thanked them personally. And rather than seeing any shame in the church hosting homeless people, he pointed to the shame of a state in which 23 percent of the children live in poverty. When other church executives might have been on the phone asking the church to stop stirring the waters, Willimon asked Highlands to churn them all the more. "I felt empowered," Holder said.

Yet Holder also mentions the time when Willimon publicly called out Highlands UMC for failing to pay its apportionments, the fees collected from congregations by the conference. "Here we'd been working to get back to paying them and he calls us out," Holder said.

Another pastor who has felt the bishop's support for his ministry is Mike Skelton. His church plant, Inner change, is aimed at reaching unchurched and de churched people, especially those familiar with tattoos, piercings and drug use. He organized a Christian rave, a nightclub-like dance party. Neighbors complained about the noise and the city eventually shut the service down—but not before Willimon himself attended a rave. Recalling that event, Willimon describes a kid who asked him, "Are you a narc?" To which he responded, "Kid, here's a dollar. I want hubcaps on my car when I get back."

He's a keen supporter of Skelton's ministry, which includes a ministry to strippers and one that makes space for those with car mechanic skills to serve those in need. "If Methodism loses the lower middle class, we're sunk," Willimon said.

Ron Schulz, a district superintendent in the North Alabama Conference, de scribes Willimon's vision this way: "He's standing on tiptoe, saying, 'This is what God wants.' Then he asks us to go and figure out how to get there." In a hier archical system like United Methodism, pastors are used to being told what to do and being rewarded for doing it. Willimon tells pastors what he wants but lets them figure out how to deliver it.

Willimon's approach seems to be paying off. The conference saw an increase in professions of faith last year to 4,000 from an average of 3,500, even though it suffered a net loss (with 7,500 deaths). Other UMC conferences are copying Willimon's approach, which he insists is not his; he cites Janice Huie, a bishop in Houston, as the forerunner in emphasizing results. The denomination's recent document "Call to Action!" called for more clergy accountability and wider publication of what works—themes central to Willimon's work in Alabama. Huie's Texas Conference reports on numbers monthly rather than weekly and asks about only four things: worship attendance, professions of faith, personal involvement in mission, and apportionment giving.

"This is a recovery of Wesley's and Francis Asbury's understanding of evidence of fruitfulness," Huie told me. "Metrics are an indicator, but not the only indicator, of vitality." Huie said she and Willimon are among several bishops pushing a similar agenda.

Being around Willimon one hears an endless stream of stories, and many of his stories are about the struggles of being a pastor. For example, he tells of a pastor who was presented with a list of ten criticisms of his leadership style. When the pastor asked if his two decades of service meant nothing, a woman in the parish responded: "That's the sort of question someone asks right before they retire." Another story he tells is about a pastor who poured forth his personal difficulties in a sermon. An elderly layperson suggested afterward that if the man lacked the stamina for the work, perhaps he should find another job.

One lesson of these stories is clear: ministry may be tough, but people deserve more than to hear pastors kvetch about it. In fact, a key to understanding Willimon is to realize how much he values hard work. As theologically committed as he is to Karl Barth and to the primacy of grace over works, he disdains those who presume that good things will fall into their lap without working hard.

Willimon also relishes stories that are outlandish—like the one about a pastor, a Vietnam veteran, who found out that a parishioner was abusing his wife. When the man came up for communion, he heard: "The body of Christ, broken for you. If you ever lay a hand on her again, I'll kill you."

He likes to tell about the time he preached at Innerchange Church. A video played beforehand in which an African-American man described how pastor Mike told him his destiny was better than being a drug user and then introduced him to Jesus. A woman appeared in the video to recount how she'd been beaten up by her boyfriend, went to buy milk for her baby and was met by an Innerchange member, who invited her to church—where she got her life back together. Willimon said, "I was crying too hard to preach. I told them they had to sing another hymn."

Though rooted in real life, the stories are undoubtedly blown up a bit. I heard different versions of them retold by pastors and found myself doing historical criticism on them. But they have a teaching purpose: the point is to expand pastors' imaginations.

I followed up on the story about the woman ministering to people on the wrong side of the tracks. When I reached pastor Hilda Walker on the phone, she said the bishop's story is true in the main and added, "He always speaks well of us." Some details were off--but the truth is actually more impressive than the story Willimon told.

The church Walker serves had been set to close in 2000. As part of her ministry in a women's prison she found inmates eager to worship. One had murdered her baby, another had needle tracks on her arm and asked, "Can I come [to church] looking like this, wearing rags?" All of the inmates wanted to come to church when they got out. Walker and her minister husband fixed up a trailer home to be a shelter for them. "We're reaching people no one else reaches," she said.

Walker complained that Willimon hasn't funded her ministry as much as he's praised it. She and her husband pay apportionments from their pocket and she makes no salary. Walker is expected to increase the size of the church enough for it to be self-supporting.

Willimon's theology has always had an enemy, whether mainline Protestant malaise, the university, liberalism or boring churches. Now his enemy is churches' lack of accountability. What seems constant in all this is his effort to point to a God we can't explain, control or follow very well. For Willimon, God is always at work in surprising ways and is calling us to new endeavors. And those who respond need to hustle to catch up.

Reprinted by permission from the June 14, 2011, issue of the Christian Century. www.christiancentury.org

Wednesday, July 06, 2011

By The Numbers

Our Conference has pioneered the use of metrics in ministry in our Conference Dashboard. Our Dashboard shows the spiritual health of churches each week showing the most reliable indicators of spiritual vitality, not only of a church’s participation in Connectional Giving, but also professions of faith, baptism, attendance, and service to those in need. Others in the United Methodist Church are taking note and starting to follow our lead. I thought you would find the following article from The United Methodist Reporter interesting. - Will Willimon

By the numbers: United Methodists debate use of church ‘dashboards’

By Mary Jacobs
Staff Writer
The United Methodist Reporter

At a meeting of the board of trustees at Emory University a few years ago, trustees pored over the college’s “dashboard”—a detailed view of 30 different numerical measures of the university’s vitality.

For Bishop William H. Willimon (North Alabama), a member of the board, it was an epiphany: Why not track vitality in the same way in the United Methodist Church?

By 2009, North Alabama had implemented an online Conference Dashboard. Every Monday, churches log in their numbers for attendance, baptisms, giving and other measures. Pastors—and anyone else—can see how their numbers stack up against other churches.

Now, Bishop Willimon logs in every Tuesday to see which churches reported the greatest increases—and which had the biggest drops. Dials and charts on the dashboard give a quick glimpse of how the numbers are trending.

Bishop Willimon’s experiment may soon become standard practice at annual conferences across the U.S. Similar “dashboards” cropped up around the same time at a handful other annual conferences—including Florida and Illinois Great Rivers—and now the General Council on Finance and Administration (GCFA) is rolling out VitalSigns, a tool modeled after the North Alabama dashboard—and encouraging every annual conference to adopt it.

Detractors say that dashboards are a mistake—a worldly tool that will turn pastors’ focus from ministry to “making the numbers.”

But advocates assert that dashboards offer a desperately-needed tool, in the face of steep declines in the denomination’s membership, to create accountability for pastors, mobilize laity and boost congregational vitality.

“We’re hoping to begin to change the culture that says ‘Numbers aren’t important,’” said Bishop John Schol (Baltimore-Washington), who’s working on the VitalSigns rollout. “Numbers are about souls.”

Always counting

Take a look at the North Alabama Conference Dashboard, and you’ll see that it names names and publishes the numbers—good, bad and ugly—for all to see. For the week of May 22, for example, Canterbury UMC in Birmingham reported two baptisms, topping the list for year-to-date baptisms at 39, while First UMC in Huntsville topped the list of “churches with biggest loss in worship” with 228 in attendance.

Keeping track of these numbers is nothing new for Methodists. John Wesley tracked membership numbers assiduously and cited numerical growth as an indicator of spiritual vitality. Many church members will recall the old wooden register boards that were once posted at the front of church sanctuaries, with movable numbers that tallied attendance and giving from week to week.

And most of the data posted on the dashboards has been tracked in the past—but generally ended up buried, and largely unheeded, in conference journals.

Before the dashboard, “We had three full-time people who did nothing but compile the numbers in the conference,” Bishop Willimon said. “But by the time we got them, they were 1-2 years out of date. It was very hard to make decisions based on those dated numbers.”

What’s changed, with the implementation of dashboards, is that now the numbers are published widely and in “real time.”

“One of my beefs with the general church is that we’ve had this fairly disturbing data for years, but you’d be hard pressed to think of any major change we’ve made in response to the numbers,” Bishop Willimon said. “Now I can honestly say that these numbers have become part of how we work.”

Bishop Willimon says he mostly focuses on the positive numbers—writing or calling pastors of churches with significant upticks, some of whom he might not otherwise know about. But he also moved a pastor, after just one year, in an appointment where attendance dropped 20 percent in the pastor’s first seven months.


Not surprisingly, the dashboards are generating pushback from pastors and seminarians.

The idea of dashboards “is both exhilarating and terrifying,” said Jason Byassee, a research fellow at Duke Divinity School who’s beginning a pastoral appointment in the Western North Carolina Conference. “It’s creating anxiety, a worry that the dashboards are designed to shame people they think are lazy pastors.”

As the Detroit Conference begins implementing GCFA’s VitalSigns dashboard, the Rev. Jerry DeVine, director of Connectional Ministries, said that some pastors have complained about the addition of yet another administrative task.

Some worry that dashboards will make ministry “all about the numbers.”

In his experience as a former district superintendent, Dr. DeVine said, “When there were positive numbers, the clergy in my district would love telling me about them. When they were not so good, they’d say, ‘I’m not a numbers person.’”

Others wonder whether numbers can really measure what matters most.

“What will numbers tell us of holiness of heart and mind? Of the pastor's seriousness and ability?” asks Austin Rivera, a Duke Divinity School student and ordination candidate in the Kansas East Conference.

“Lately I’ve been preaching a lot about friendship with the poor,” writes the Rev. Tom Arthur, pastor of Sycamore Creek UMC in Lansing, Mich., in a recent blog post on dashboards. “How do you measure that?”

The right measures?

The first time someone showed the North Alabama dashboard to Amy Laura Hall, she burst into tears. The associate professor of Christian ethics at Duke Divinity School has been a sharp critic ever since.

She calls dashboards a “union busting” tactic—targeting clergy and their guaranteed appointments, and compares them to the metrics enacted in public schools by the No Child Left Behind Act that, she says, similarly target teachers with tenure.

“Pastors won’t be able to preach what their congregations need to hear without thinking about the numbers,” she said.

Bishop Willimon isn’t buying that argument.

“That’s an old-fashioned Methodist alibi—‘We’re dying because we’re so prophetic and truthful,’” he said. “The words you’re looking for there are actually ‘boring’ and ‘old.’”

“The question is what can the numbers really tell us?” Dr. Byassee said. “It’s easy to get people in the building. Put up a sign that says ‘Free Beer’ and they will come. Attendance figures don’t tell us to what degree the church is loving Jesus.”

Dr. Byassee, who authored a book, The Gifts of the Small Church, hopes that dashboards won’t tilt emphasis toward larger churches.

“Jesus had nice things to say about wherever two or three are gathered,” he said. “He attends to his closest followers rather than the crowds. And he leaves behind the hundred to go get one.”

Despite his concerns, Dr. Byassee agrees that ignoring numbers completely is na├»ve too. No church would lose track of its bank account balance, he noted—that’s ‘baseline stewardship.’

“More data doesn’t make more wisdom,” he said. “But it is harder to get wisdom without data.”

Advocates note, too, that laypeople are less likely than clergy to dislike the dashboard concept.

“Lay members are accustomed to accountability in their work,” said Bishop Timothy Whitaker (Florida). “They’re not threatened by it. They know they perform better when there’s a system of accountability.”

Metric madness?

Dr. Hall also claims that dashboards use the same kind of metrics that businesses use to sell products, and in doing so, “routinize ministry in ways that are antithetical to Christian teaching,” she said. “Metrics distort the way we are called to see one another in Jesus Christ.”

She also accused church leaders of using dashboards as a “pathetic and mean” way to bring much-needed money and new people.

“This is public shaming of pastors who don’t bring in new members,” she said. Luke Wetzel, a Duke Divinity student and ministry candidate in the Kansas East Conference, says trust, not accountability, is the real driver behind the dashboards.

“Our clergy don’t trust each other, and our churches don’t trust the conference,” he said. “I fear that the fruits of dashboards are competition and coercion.”

The Rev. Robert “Bob” Phillips, directing pastor of First UMC in Peoria, Ill., doesn’t see it that way, even though his church showed up poorly in one metric—the highest net loss of membership in the conference—for one week in May.

Membership in his church is down, in part, because the church is working to remove outdated names from its rolls—and his bishop and DS know that, he said. And FUMC Peoria also turned up near the top of another list, as one of the highest payers of apportionment dollars in the conference.

“The key here is the level of trust that pastors have in their bishop, and the integrity of how the bishop and the cabinet interact and affirm pastors once they’re appointed,” he said. “With trust, the dashboard is a genuinely helpful metric to measure where we’re headed and where we need to go. Without trust, a dashboard could become a game of ‘gotcha.’”

Equipping clergy

Dr. DeVine says that the Detroit Conference embraced the dashboard concept as part of another program, the Vital Church Initiative, that trains pastors and lay leaders on building church vitality.

“We also felt we can’t ask pastors to raise the bar if we’re not there to equip them to do that,” he said. “If we are asking them to start measuring themselves, we are ready and willing to support and equip them through training that goes beyond what they learned in seminary.”

Dr. DeVine compares dashboards to the pedometers that some people wear to track their daily physical activity and to motivate themselves to move more.

The dashboard “is an invitation to a wellness program,” he said. “It’s not intended to be punitive or oppressive.”

Like pedometers, he admits, dashboards won’t solve problems—only provide a tracking measure.

But they do encourage church leaders to focus on areas that need attention, says the Rev. Jeff Stiggins, executive director of the Center for Congregational Excellence in the Florida Conference.

While comparisons among churches and pastors are inevitable, Dr. Stiggins says, the dashboards’ main purpose is to allow congregations to focus on their own progress.

He said he’s seen “story after story” of congregations that turned their focus on ministry to people outside of the church, spurred by the metrics they report. Before the conference instituted its dashboard, no statistics were collected that related to that type of outreach, allowing churches that had become “self-absorbed” to go unchallenged.

“If you ask the right question long enough, it becomes the way people pay attention,” Dr. Stiggins said. “Otherwise, it’s like playing basketball without keeping score.”

Tuesday, July 05, 2011

Rush of Relief

It was two months ago today that tornadoes left paths of destruction throughout our Annual Conference. This week I want to share with you a news story that was recently in The United Methodist Reporter describing how our new campus minister at the University of Alabama Wesley Foundation Rev. Creighton Alexander was able to mobilize student volunteers from Wesley Foundations at colleges and universities around the U.S. to come serve in Tuscaloosa in the early days following storms. Our United Methodist connectional system is still at work responding to these storms and will be for the long haul! - Will Willimon

Rush of relief: Student volunteers aid in Alabama response

By Mary Jacobs
Staff Writer
The United Methodist Reporter

If there’s a “silver lining” in the terrible storms that struck the Southeast on April 27, it’s the story of how the United Methodist connectional system quickly mobilized churches and volunteers to provide disaster relief.

One powerful example comes from the Wesley Foundation at the University of Alabama. Heeding an invitation issued by “Bama Wesley” just days after the storm, dozens of student volunteers from Wesley Foundations at colleges and universities around the U.S. have already traveled to Alabama to help with cleanup and relief.

Although it’s located in Tuscaloosa—one of the areas hardest hit by the swath of tornadoes—the Wesley Foundation’s building escaped major damage. So the Rev. Creighton Alexander, the foundation’s director, put out a call via Facebook and email inviting students at other Wesley Foundations to come, help with the relief and cleanup work in Tuscaloosa and stay at the Wesley facility. (The Foundation was without power for days, but he was able to get the word out by way of his cellphone.)

Students answered the call. Mr. Alexander says the Foundation has already hosted eight groups, and he expected a total of at least 20 groups will visit over the summer. Students are coming in from the campus ministries at the University of Oklahoma, Purdue University, Mercer University in Macon, Ga., LaGrange College, Winthrop University, Texas Tech, Ole Miss and others.

Andrew Ferdon, 21, a civil engineering major at Purdue University, joined a group if 17 young people, 14 of them students from Purdue’s Wesley Foundation, that traveled to Tuscaloosa in early May.

“When we heard about the storms, we decided we’d like to go to help, but most of the agencies we called needed trained individuals,” he said. “But Creighton said he’d love to have us.”

Mr. Ferdon said there was a week between final exams and the time when most students would start summer school or summer jobs. They gathered chain saws and other tools and headed to Alabama.

The Purdue students brought more than just willing hands and strong backs. Churches in the Lafayette, Ind., area—Asbury UMC, First UMC-West Lafayette and Trinity UMC—donated $3,000 to cover expenses and to help with relief work.

“I feel like I’ve been blessed in my life,” Mr. Ferdon said. “That blessing gives me a challenge to help others, and this was just an opportunity to help.”

Connections in place

For the past few years, Mr. Alexander has participated in Refresh, an annual gathering of United Methodist campus ministers sponsored by the Foundation for Evangelism. Connections made at those gatherings, he said, made it easy for him to extend an invitation to other Wesley Foundations to come to Tuscaloosa.

Many adult United Methodist volunteers are pouring into Tuscaloosa; many of them staying at FUMC Tuscaloosa. The Wesley Foundation was not only able to utilize student volunteers—most of whom did not have prior emergency response training—but also provided those students with a faith-inspiring experience.

“I know it’s a little weird to say this, but we’re having a blast,” Mr. Alexander said. “The students are doing a great job of taking care of people, and they’re having fun doing it.”

Volunteers are sleeping in a makeshift dorm, on cots, sleeping bags and inflatable mattresses. They eat their meals at FUMC Tuscaloosa, and worship together on Tuesday evenings.

Gabriela Law, 21, a biochemistry and molecular biology major at Mercer University in Macon, Ga., traveled to Tuscaloosa in mid-May along with eight other Mercer students.

“At first, it was overwhelming,” she said. “I had no idea that there was this kind of destruction.”

Still, she left Tuscaloosa uplifted. “The way the community is coming together is really impressive,” she said. “To see God bringing people together through a horrible situation is amazing, and it’s something you want to be a part of.”

Wesley hosts the students in its facility, and the Southwest District of the North Alabama conference puts them to work on projects around the area. Some students helped staff a supply distribution center at nearby Hargrove Memorial United Methodist Church; others have spent their days clearing away trees.

Mr. Ferdon says he’s mastered the chain saw in Tuscaloosa, noting the area seemed to have a lot of trees—and most of them were felled wherever the tornadoes ripped through.

Zac Head, a sophomore at the University of Alabama, lives in Tuscaloosa. His home escaped major damage. After the storm, he and a friend carried sandwiches, chips and bottles of water to people in the areas most affected.

He says the influx of fellow Wesley Foundation students was encouraging, and for those Alabama students, like him, who were not displaced, the opportunity to help has proved to be healing as well.

“The best word for the situation here, in the first few days, was chaos,” he said. “But as long as we’re helping others, I know that God will help me through this situation.”

Plenty left to do

There’s room for more groups of students, Mr. Alexander said, who’d like to come to Tuscaloosa later this summer. (To inquire, email him at creightonalexander@gmail.com.) He says volunteers can expect to do hard, physical work—they’re still focused on removing trees and sorting debris—and promises there will be plenty of work to do throughout the summer.

“The Southwest District is doing an incredible job of coordinating volunteers,” he said. “No one is going to be idle.”

The work is hard, but the fellowship among students has been memorable.

“We connected with kids from several different schools,” Mr. Ferdon said. “It was cool meeting kids from other parts of the country who have the same willingness to do God’s work.”

“This generation, they really want to help,” Mr. Alexander said. “Their compassion and passion to help is inspiring.”

How to help

Those who can’t come but would like to pitch in for resources to help the students in their relief work may donate at www.bamawesley.org.